February 12, 2018 10:00 AM
This week’s Courier Herald column:
President Donald Trump is scheduled to release his infrastructure plan in Washington this week. While the exact particulars weren’t available until after deadline, the Associated Press has released enough of an outline that shows what is in the plan, and what isn’t.
There’s a very specific theme in the plan in that states will have a much bigger say in their destiny. This is evident in both the funding and the regulatory portions of the outline.
The plan makes clear that the federal government is not going to push out “shovel ready” stimulus money for projects that states may or may not want or need, but feel compelled to take because the money is “free”.
Instead, the federal government will be offering about $200 Billion in matching fund grants to states for transportation, broadband, water, and other infrastructure needs. It is estimated that these grants will compose about 20% of an awarded project’s total funding, with state and local governments funding the rest. Thus, the “trillion dollars” in infrastructure investments will be largely financed by states, cities and counties, and/or public private partnerships.
This is significant to Georgians for two reasons. Georgia positioned itself to fund new road projects three years ago with 2015’s HB 170, which provided almost a billion dollars per year for road and bridge maintenance and upgrades. Many of the new projects are still in design and permitting stages. Thus, Georgia is ready with projects on the drawing board that should be able to match available new federal funding.
One such project that is already underway but still searching for promised federal funding is the deepening of the Savannah Harbor for the Port of Savannah. Ports are specifically mentioned as part of the nation’s infrastructure upgrade needs, so hopefully Savannah too will be at the front of the line.
Legislators in the Georgia House and Senate have proposed new rural broadband funding mechanisms during this year’s general assembly. Once again, Georgia stands in position to be ready to help itself by activities of previous study committees who identified problems and potential solutions.
The same goes for Atlanta regional transit system upgrades. A Georgia House bill is expected to be unveiled this week, with a Senate proposal for an invigorated region wide Atlanta transit system filed last week. This won’t be a quick nor cheap series of projects, but knowing additional federal funds could be available may give additional motivation to secure dedicated state funding to the plan.
Much as Georgia has created its own luck by positioning itself to lure large corporate headquarters such as Amazon, Georgia’s leaders have also positioned themselves to be ready for federal matching funds. Other states have had trouble balancing their budgets during the last few years. Georgia has both prioritized its own infrastructure upgrades while at the same time putting surpluses in the rainy day fund.
While the second part of the plan won’t generate as many headlines, the streamlining of federal regulations on permitting may actually have more significance than the amount of federal grant money offered. Currently, major infrastructure projects can take 3-5 years for federal environmental reviews alone, with total permitting taking as long as a decade. These timeframes drive up costs, and delay the impact of projects and withhold solutions for unreasonable lengths of time.
Transportation planners and contractors have long called for sensible and realistic reforms that allow for proper project vetting, but remove additional levels of bureaucratic red tape that seemed designed to discourage if not outright kill most projects.
While some will see the federal dollars proposed as insignificant, Georgia is in a position to benefit from a plan crafted this way. Georgia has already dedicated money to roads and ports, and is prepared to earmark additional money for transit and broadband. Couple these funding commitments with much faster permitting, Georgia’s leaders may be able to get the solutions they have designed faster and cheaper than originally thought.